7.4 Use of pretérito perfecto, pretérito indefinido and pretérito imperfecto

Actually it's quite easy to differentiate the pretérito plusquamperfecto from the other tenses, but we'll have a look at this a little later in chapter 7.6. The pretérito perfecto is again quite simple to recognise since - as you will see it is very similar to the English present perfect . For most of us it's a bit tricky to find the difference between pretérito imperfecto andpretérito indefinido. Here you will have an overview over all the three tenses:

Use of the three tenses

  pretérito imperfecto

There are two actions in the past that happen at the same time.


There is an action in the past that is disrupted by another action in the past.

3. The action is repeated in the past.

4. It's not clear whether the action that started in the past still continues or not.

5. It's not actually important when it happened. It's just in the past.
  pretérito indefinido


It is an action in the past that was finished in the past and does not have any influence on the present anymore.

There are more than one actions in a sequence in the past.

  pretérito perfecto = present perfect


The action happened in the past, nevertheless, it still has an influence on the present for the speaker.

The speaker is in the same time frame / time "zone" like the action he is talking about.

Just have a look at the table to find some significant examples

pretérito imperfecto, pretérito perfecto and pretérito indefinido

Let us have a look at the implications, which the different tenses have and what kind of association they give:
Él estuvo enfermo El año pasado estuvo enfermo

Last year he was ill.

Él estaba enfermo Él estaba enfermo, cuando sus padres construían la casa When his parents built the house, he was ill.
Él ha estado enfermo Al principio de este año él ha estado enfermo, pero ahora está bien At the beginning of this year he has been ill, now he is fine again.

pretérito imperfecto and pretérito indefinido

English sentence

There was a little village, but the people were happy.
Spanish correct
Era un pueblo pequeño, pero la gente era feliz
It's not important when the village existed and whether it is still on this planet. It just was.
Spanish incorrect
Fue un pueblo pequeño, pero la gente fue feliz

English sentence
While he told me the story of his life, I was bored to death.
Spanish correct
Mientras él me contaba su vida, yo me aburría a muerte
The "classic" case: there are two actions at the same time.
Spanish incorrect
Mientras me contó su vida, yo me aburrí a muerte

English sentence

I was walking on the street when suddenly the accident happened that changed my life.
Spanish correct

Paseaba por la calle, cuando de repente ocurrió este accidente, que cambió mi vida


There is the basic action - walking on the street - that is interrupted / disturbed by a second action - the accident, that changed my life.
Spanish incorrect

Pasé por la calle, cuando de repente ocurrió este accidente, que cambió mi vida

English sentence

He drank his beer, paid and left.
Spanish correct

Bebió su cerveza, pagó y se fue


More than one action that occurs in succession.
Spanish incorrect

Bebía su cerveza, pagaba y se iba

We already had a short glance at the verbs that have a different meaning when used in
imperfecto in comparison to the indefinido.


saber in imperfecto = to know saber in indefinido = get to know

Cuando la viste,
sabías ya que se había muerto su marido?

When you saw her,
did you already know that her husband had died?

Si, lo supe el domingo,
cuando María me lo dijo

Yes, I heard about it on Sunday,
when María told me.


conocer in imperfecto = to know conocer in indefinido = to get to know, to meet
A María,
la conocía ya cuando todavía vivía en Paris.

I knew María already when living in Paris.
A María,
la conocí en Paris

I met María in Paris


tener in imperfecto = to have, to own tener in indefinido = to get
Tenía una casa muy linda en Berlín,
pero vivía en Munich

He had a very nice house in Berlin,
but he lived in Munich.
Cuando tuvo la casa en Berlin, se mudó

When he got a house in Berlin
he moved right away.

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